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  • A Look and a Nod:Merleau-Ponty, Shakespeare, Heaney, and the Mediation of Form

To describe Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 and Seamus Heaney's "The Nod"—poems about a look and a nod—is to see literary form as an act of perception, one that is always historical and meaningful, a movement back and forth between perceiver and perceived. Even so conspicuous a form as the sonnet is never empty and only provisionally subject to measure or analysis. To read these works is to recognize what Merleau-Ponty calls the "chiasm"—to see the work of art as an enactment of "mediation through reversal" and to see being in its primordial standing as appearing, enduring, and apprehending.

The painter "takes his body with him."

—Paul Valéry1

Nevertheless, Renoir was looking at the sea.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty2

Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye.

—Herman Melville3

The painter takes his body with him—he looks at what he sees and what he sees looks back at him. Perception takes place in the exchange, in time and in the world, not only between people or between living things but also between "subject" and "object," between perceiver and perceived. In this exchange that Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls "the chiasm"—"this mediation through reversal"—something direct and active takes place. Before we can know or say what we're seeing, before [End Page 311] we divide what we see into things or kinds of things, before naming and measurement, assertion and logic, we take part in "Being without restriction."4 We perceive what is visible and invisible. "Objects enter into each other," Paul Cézanne said. "They never stop living, you understand. … Imperceptibly they extend beyond themselves through intimate reflections, as we do by looks and words."5 Something happens in the act of perception—a meaning that cannot be fixed in a form that is neither "formal" nor "free" but contingent, given, received, and imagined.

When Merleau-Ponty quotes Paul Valéry in "Eye and Mind," he adds, "Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement" ("EM," p. 162). The body of a poet, too, is "an intertwining of vision and movement"—and his work a "transubstantiation" of the world into writing. Like a painting, a poem is that object according to which, for the duration of reading and from time to time afterward, we see. It is less an object than an appearing and apprehending—a mediation between ourselves and the world. The more we take it up, providing we don't reduce it to analysis or measurement, the more it will restore us to the reciprocity of perception that is the basis for all we know.

To see form on one side and meaning on the other—form as empty and meaning as full—is to miss the boat, whose meaning lies in that we interact with it, whether as passengers or imaginatively. To catch the boat is to think it, to catch its drift, and no one has ever been able to think without a body and without the world. The world is the human apprehension of that which appears, an apprehension we have learned to collect in systems of our own. Given the contingency of the world, it has helped to have many worlds, but these of our making rely on the earth, on our bodies, on our perception of near and far, our perception of continuity, and our perception of others who may or may not perceive along the same lines. The world of language can be analyzed as a system, reduced to signifier, signified, and sign: that which is empty, that which has content, and the relation between the two. Literature is always the third term, the back and forth between signifier and signified. It is one step removed from the practical wish to transform the world and another from the wish to conserve the world that suits us—the eternal or essential world.6 Literature explores the world, with which it is complicit. Like philosophy, it does its best to see firsthand, [End Page 312] recognizing, as well, the visibility and insights of others. It does not lend itself to analysis except provisionally—to be paid back with interest. Literature is always historical, always a matter of meaning, and always a matter of form—inextricably.

"My look," Merleau-Ponty writes, "is one of the givens of the 'sensible,' of the brute and primordial world, that defies the analysis into being and nothingness, into existence as consciousness and existence as a thing, and requires a complete reconstruction of philosophy" (VI, p. 193). The subject is that being who is open to the world, and the same can be said of the object, which is open to the same world. Human being is the site of these openings—of a look that cannot take place without an eye that can be seen; of a gathering into language that brings appearing and apprehending to the wholeness that constitutes being. "Truth is the openness of beings," Martin Heidegger writes. "To know is accordingly to be able to stand in the openness of beings, to stand up to it."7 Neither "subject" nor "object" is ever closed—a thing-for-itself or a thing-in-itself.

This mystery—the paradox of immanence and transcendence, the sense we have within ourselves of those things that are beyond us—attracts us to the sky, the land, the sea; it appears as we look into a human eye; and it appears as well when we read a poem or see a painting. "I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at," Merleau-Ponty writes. "For I do not look at it as I do at a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, or with it, than that I see it" ("EM," p. 164). A work of art is worth more than self-consciousness, more than knowledge, more than any realization given to us by analysis: "Precisely because it dwells and makes us dwell in a world we do not have the key to, the work of art teaches us to see and ultimately gives us something to think about as no analytical work can; because when we analyze an object, we find only what we have put into it" (Signs, p. 77).

Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 is about a look—a look that continues between poem and reader and transgresses the divisions on which analysis depends:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hangUpon those boughs which shake against the cold,Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.In me thou seest the twilight of such day, [End Page 313] As after sunset fadeth in the west,Which by and by black night doth take away,Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.In me thou seest the glowing of such fireThat on the ashes of his youth doth lie,As the death-bed whereon it must expire,Consumed with that which it was nourished by.        This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,        To love that well which thou must leave ere long.8

Two things we might say at first about this poem are that it is a sonnet, an example of a literary form so conspicuous as to be exemplary of literary form, and it is a love poem, its subject exemplary of the subject not only of sonnets but of literature generally: love, time, loss, and death. We can describe the form as "form" emptily enough—the iambic lines, the rhyme scheme, the three quatrains, the couplet—and we can cite history over and over to confirm the poem's contents, the universality of its meaning. But the poem doesn't work that way.

The "time of year" is also the time of the poem, the time of its reading—one is imagined in the other. The iambic rhythm is inseparable from the voice of the poet. We readers share the poem's existence, for we hear this rhythm and this voice and begin to wonder what time of year we're talking about. The "thou" that follows refers to us before it refers to the beloved who loves the speaker. It refers to the reader and the implied listener and also to the person outside the poem who has taken it up and may or may not see according to its statements or suggestions, for we hear the challenge to our imagination. The "me" is the older lover, it is the speaker in the poem, it is the speaker of the poem reenacted in the act of reading, and it is also the poet as poet, though he'd hardly have been old when he wrote it. The last word of the first line is "behold." Our own look is as much the subject of the poem as that of the younger lover and that of the speaker who sees what we see in him. The actors in the poem are the objects of these looks—poem, speaker, implied listener, and reader. We see according to the poem, according to the speaker, according to the implied listener, and according to ourselves. Everyone is writing and reading everyone else. The poem's form and content are the subjectivity and intersubjectivity by which we know these modes of being to exist.

The time of year imagined is qualified by one and then another change of mind: "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where [End Page 314] late the sweet birds sang." Yellow is a striking color, the brightest color, the lightest of the chromatic chord. We only need a hint of it before it is displaced by a lack of color and form altogether, which is displaced by a small quantity of color and form against a greater background of brown or gray. I'm not young, the speaker tells us, but I'm not dead either, I'm just old. As he changes the image, so do we, and as we do, we comprehend the concept—neither image nor concept overshadows the other. Yellow is presented, removed, modified. Choirs are bare and ruined as they are evoked and singing continues and discontinues in the memory of it and the end of the quatrain—in a line lovely to repeat in its sounds and rhythm, its tone and overtones.

Whatever Shakespeare knew about complementary color—about spontaneous contrast and afterimage—the yellow in the poem, which has already given way to gray, becomes violet before giving way to black. The color is only imagined, but its evocation seems to paint rather than draw the boundary between verbal and pictorial meaning. On the other hand, the quatrains seem outlined—each followed by a period, each completing its part in the rhyme scheme, and each bearing a distinct image and demarcation of time. Their literary form is emphasized, but its effect is to frame the pictures. Seeing structures the poem—it defines the quatrains and gathers them into a whole. In the second quatrain, time diminishes from year to day as vision expands—we see the horizon, the fading sunset in the west. And we see these things because we remember them. Seeing is inseparable from time and form, form from seeing and time, time from form and seeing.

Yellow has not left us altogether—any more than it did in the first quatrain—and now it reappears in the third, more orange perhaps, shaded toward red in the glowing of the fire and again grounded in gray and black, in the ash and the coals. "The drawing and the color are no longer distinct," Cézanne says; "as soon as you paint you draw; the more the colors harmonize, the more precise the drawing becomes. I know that from experience. When the color is at its richest, the form is at its fullest" (C, p. 221). The fire's glow is the life the speaker has remaining—it is also the love he and his beloved share. The ashes are the speaker's youth or the early days of their love. Quatrain by quatrain, metaphor yields to metaphor, and in the last metaphor, a new one appears—form, like matter, begetting form. This new figure is the ground for the real figure, the speaker imagined on his deathbed. As the fire is consumed along with the wood that nourishes it, and life with the fact of living, so too is the poem with the act of reading, if we see the poem as it actually exists. [End Page 315]

The last thing we're going to do with two lines to go is stop reading. A sonnet is short to begin with, but when we see it about to end, we do not put it down, and if we like it, we look forward to taking it up past its ending—we take it up all the more. A sonnet is not so hard to gather into a whole; not so hard to memorize. In the couplet, the images are explicitly surrendered to the person who perceives them, the person who perceives "this," and whose love, according to the speaker, ignores the boundaries of time even as it recognizes time's decisiveness. It ignores the boundaries of subjectivity even as it recognizes the end of intersubjectivity. The speaker will soon be gone. The beloved, too, will have to leave—and soon seeing will be over altogether. "To love that well which thou must leave ere long" is to love somebody, and also to love things. The "that" can refer to the life we see in another's eyes and to the reflection that shows us our own second self, for we, too, can be seen against a background and within a horizon, even when our own eyes are sealed. It can refer to the objects that act for their own part: the leaves that hang, the boughs that shake, the birds that no longer sing, the sunset that fades, the night that takes away and seals up, the fire that glows and must expire. "To love that well" is to love the world that stands forth in this long, mysterious look—the look of beings and things that constitutes time itself.

In analyzing poetry, we have unfortunately divided the world into "closed" and "open" form. The distinction is as logical as it is misleading—like that between "subject" and "object." Some ways to think about a work of art escape analysis, for they are directed toward "symbols whose meaning we never stop developing" (Signs, p. 77). According to these ways, we do not measure a poem or replace sound or meaning with a thesis; rather, we take part in the poem's existence as action and the imitation of action—in time and in the world. Merleau-Ponty writes that "to comprehend is not to constitute in intellectual immanence" but "to apprehend by coexistence, laterally, by the style, and thereby to attain at once the far-off reaches of this style and of this cultural apparatus" (VI, p. 188). The style of a poet or painter emerges from his or her contact with the world. It finds its way into a given medium in a concentrated act of perception—not for the sake of permanence but in the necessity and contingency that binds appearing to perception and perception to linguistic or plastic exploration and expression.

A poem is not the sum of its elements—verbal images and figures of speech, sentences and lines, sound and rhythm—and should not be defined from without by an emphasis on any one of these. In a passage [End Page 316] many times cited, Henri Bergson writes, "If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy nilly, wait until the sugar melts." The time he has to wait is not "that mathematical time which would apply equally well to the entire history of the material world."9 Measurement is geometrical, intellectual, proportional—one can measure to scale and have little to do with meaning. But a poem takes place in the time it takes to read, speak, or remember it—in succession, continuity, and wholeness—not from point to point in instantaneous juxtaposition. It occupies the same duration we do, imperfectly coinciding with our impatience, our attention, our thinking ahead. Its rhythm is not made up of repeated iambs, as if one were equal to another, or anything else that can be repeated, for nothing in time is repeated—not exactly. Even an identical sound or interval would be one more sound or interval the next time around. Of course we hear this return—we carry it with us in memory and anticipation as we carry a tune. But it is only measured or measurable beforehand or afterward, when it is not so much taken up as laid out in absence. In the event, the continuity of accented and unaccented syllables in their complex variety is indeterminate. It is free—as any movement is free from the points through which it passes. "There is an external reality which is given immediately to our mind," Bergson writes. "Common sense is right on this point against the idealism and realism of the philosopher. … This reality is mobility. … All reality is, therefore, tendency, if we agree to call tendency a nascent change of direction."10 We can call iambic pentameter a tendency, "if we agree to call tendency a nascent change of direction" and iambic pentameter the measure of that which is anything but measure.

Any verbal expression is a compromise with reality—unless it exists as speech. Speech is always promising to get past the fixed forms and definitions it requires. The promise it fulfills is that of being spoken and heard. There are poems and poems: there is a difference between blank verse and free verse, as there is between shades of color and one tone and another. The poet hears what he or she is doing. We hear it, too, and catch on to it. But we hear at one and the same time the provisional and improvisational character of all rhythm, all meaning, and all works of art. "It is certainly right to condemn formalism," Merleau-Ponty writes in the essay titled "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,"

but it is ordinarily forgotten that its error is not that it esteems form too much, but that it esteems it so little that it detaches it from meaning. In this respect formalism is no different than a literature of "subject," which [End Page 317] also separates the meaning of the work from its configuration. The true contrary of formalism is a good theory of style, or of speech, which puts both above "technique" or "device." Speech is not a means in the service of an external end. It contains its own rule of usage, ethics, and view of the world, as a gesture sometimes bears the whole truth about a man.

(Signs, p. 77)

The truth about a poem is not its subject or its closed or open form, any more than the truth about a man is that he is a philosopher or left-or right-handed. He can make a meaningful gesture with either hand.

Seamus Heaney's "The Nod" is a poem about gesture, a sonnet that is open-ended, and an act of speech whose style we can admire without locating it in anything but the man and his world and whose meaning we need never stop developing:

Saturday evenings we would stand in lineIn Loudan's butcher shop. Red beef, white string,Brown paper ripped straight off for parcellingAlong the counter edge. Rib roast and shinPlonked down, wrapped up, and bow-tied neat and cleanBut seeping blood. Like dead weight in a sling,Heavier far than I had been expectingWhile my father shelled out for it, coin by coin.

Saturday evenings too the local B-Men,Unbuttoned but on duty, thronged the town,Neighbours with guns, parading up and down,Some nodding at my father almost past himAs if deliberately they'd aimed and missed himOr couldn't seem to place him, not just then.11

The poem represents two impressions, one right after the other, in the octave and sextet. The octave is longer, one impression thus receiving more lines, or more time, if you like, but the placement of the other in the concluding sextet gives it more weight, and it is this second impression to which the title of the poem refers. The speaker does not comment on the connection between the two impressions, but the poem does, for it places them together. The first anticipates the second, in its introduction of the son and father and the world they share, its contemplation and configuration of the neat and the bloody, its oblique reference to an unexpected meaning. The stanzas are joined [End Page 318] by the introductory phrases "Saturday evenings" and "Saturday evenings too" and by our understanding that the two impressions took place in proximity—not necessarily one after the other on the same evening but as part of the same ritual, the same recurrent errand. They are joined as well by their connection in memory and writing, and they are joined at last in the present act of reading.

The experiences are recalled and comprehended as from a distance, yet made extraordinarily immediate—in sensations and actions that are made up not only of the words' referential values but of their physicality and arrangement: the edge of the line and the tear of the paper, "Rib roast and shin / Plonked down, wrapped up, and bow-tied neat and clean / But seeping blood"—the boy then feeling the unexpected weight of the package in the following sentence fragment that implies an action that has already taken place, his being handed or taking hold of the package, and refers rhythmically to one that is ongoing, his father's shelling out for it "coin by coin." The father counts the coins as he counts the values that make up the world, less numerically than sensibly, by feeling and apprehending, as do the boy, the poet, and the reader.

In the space between the two stanzas we take in not so much the juxtaposition between the first impression and the second as their succession and that of the two parts of the poem. In other words, the space is not nothing—not a hole in the medium of poetry—but a part of the poem's duration, in which the sense of the poem's visible and rhythmic organization continues to gather itself, coherence becoming wholeness. The second impression is again grounded in concrete and multiple sensations, but they take place in a wider world—that of other men, of Protestant and Catholic, of the possibility of spilt human blood. It is about the boy's—or his father's, which amounts almost to the same thing—separation from the world, from his neighbors, the "unbuttoned" Protestant paramilitary. Yet it is also about the poet's return home, a return to himself in the interactions between memory and lived experience, between speech and the world.

The nod is really more than one nod, and it is also a nod that can be taken more than one way. While the B-men are represented as a unit, and linguistically paraded as such in the childlike rhyme in which their parading is represented ("thronged the town" "up and down"), only some of them nod at the father. And from these the nod is always "just past him," but it is either a proud nod—that of intolerance and bigotry, with an irresolute mercy in that the nod is likened to a shot that deliberately misses—or a confused nod, in which the B-man is also [End Page 319] a neighbor who cannot reconcile his recognition of another neighbor with his recognition of an outsider. And so he focuses, for the moment, on a space that is neither here nor there. The boy, who recognizes this discrepancy, becomes after many years the poet who apprehends it and adds to it his own qualification. The nod might be proud and bigoted, but it is also human; the poet doesn't condemn the man who nods so much as let him off the hook—as if he "couldn't seem to place him, not just then." Here, too, the rhyme embodies the meaning, the disregard in the B-men's recognition, the ambivalent meaning of an ambivalent nod, brought about not in a couplet nor in the third and sixth lines of a sextet but along with a syllable less than fully stressed at the end of the sextet's first line: "Saturday evenings too the local B-men."

The subject of "The Nod" is a perfect subject for a sonnet: first, a moment or state of intensity that is really an interval of multiple sensations permeating one another and existing in relation to the world, and, second, the apperception of these sensations in their continuity and wholeness. The moment of intensity endures in that it is experienced again by the poet in memory. The poet and the boy overlap in a consciousness that is in a way the same consciousness—not a moment of pure duration, for there is no such thing, but the continuity of a lifetime. What the boy perceived, the poet can put into words and into a wider context—one that is personal, biographical, historical, and literary. The real moment is long past, for the poet is not there where the boy was and he would recognize differences between himself as a man and himself as boy. And yet, in the literary imagination and the real effects of the sonnet, the real moment has been brought back to life. It is embodied in rhythm, sound, imagery, and figures of speech; in a succession of sensations that are imaginatively held in place by the poet and reader; in the coherence and wholeness of a literary form that dramatizes coherence and wholeness. Above all, it is brought back to life in the world—the same world. The poem's configuration reenacts the poem's subjects: the purchase of meat and the nod of the B-men, the sense of belonging and of distance, the movement of the past into the present and future. Its meaning develops like the meaning of life: we get it whole even as it passes—concretely, heterogeneously, and once and for all.

Heaney's style emerges from his contact with the world. It originates from his relation to being and comes to term in his acts of apprehending and expression. The style of "The Nod" was called for by the boy's, his father's, the butcher's, and the B-men's historical setting and actions, a [End Page 320] convergence whose meaning was sketched out in the boy's perception and drawn more permanently in the poet's. Being a matter of creation, the poem's form is a manner of being in time, a manner of existence. It is an act of apprehending and expression that commingles with the world. For the reader and the speaker of the poem, as for the boy and his observations, the meaning is always for the first time.

What a painter paints or a poet writes—whether the painting or poem is representational, abstract, "closed," or "open"—is "the allusive logic of the perceived world." Merleau-Ponty recalls a story about Auguste Renoir told by André Malraux in La Création esthétique. The innkeeper at Cassis, seeing the painter at work on the beach, comes up to him and is surprised to see in the painting "some naked women bathing in some other place. Goodness knows what he was looking at," the innkeeper says, "and he changed only a little corner." Merleau-Ponty asks, "Why did the blue of the sea pertain to the world of his painting? How was it able to teach him something about the brook in The Bathers?" He answers: "Because each fragment of the world—and in particular the sea, sometimes riddled with eddies and ripples and plumed with spray, sometimes massive and immobile in itself—contains all sorts of shapes of being and, by the way it has of joining the encounter with one's glance, evokes a series of possible variants and teaches, over and beyond itself, a general way of expressing being" (Signs, pp. 55–57). The sea appears before us in its "emerging-abiding sway" (IM, p. 16). It opens itself to us in a particular manner, teaches us how to exhibit and arrange a liquid substance, and provides us with "a typical form of manifestations of water," so that we might gather it up in our words and paintings. "A vision or an action that is finally free," Merleau-Ponty writes, "throws out of focus and regroups objects of the world for the painter and words for the poet." In the work of art, the "encounter between the man who has to be and what exists" is far more serious than an attempt to copy or an imposition of convention on reality (Signs, pp. 56–57). It is a nod that, even if it misses its mark, may restore us to our mortal lives.

What can the sea teach us about form? We see in it a way of being that requires our strictest attention and gives us nothing to hold onto by way of concepts or analysis—only endless configurations and colors that develop as they disappear, gone, as Ahab might say, before we can "clap eye" on them. It is made up of directional tendencies—an extraordinary and unstable unity and coherence that is always and never what it was or will be. Its shapes are always those of the sea, what we might call triangles or whorls or ripples or waves, and its colors, blue [End Page 321] or aquamarine or green or slate, are never exactly these and always the colors of the sea. It begins at the shore on which we stand and ends at the horizon of which we are a part. It rises and falls—as speech rises and falls—and endures in the perpetual back and forth between perceiver and perceived. Nothing is more beautiful and evocative of being, more inclusive of and more indifferent to our existence.

Arthur A. Brown
Santa Fe, New Mexico


1. Paul Valéry, quoted in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," trans. Carleton Dallery, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 162; hereafter abbreviated "EM."

2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 56; hereafter cited Signs.

3. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 591.

4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 215; hereafter abbreviated VI.

5. Joachim Gasquet, Joachim Gasquet's Cézanne, trans. Christopher Pemberton (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 220; hereafter abbreviated C.

6. See Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 113, 149.

7. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 2nd ed., trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 24; hereafter abbreviated IM. Also see pp. 15–16, 154.

8. Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Stephen Booth (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000),p. 64.

9. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), p. 9.

10. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Addison (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 188.

11. Seamus Heaney, District and Circle (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006), p. 34.

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